Sending sex offenders into exile
"Paranoia," University of Maryland Professor C. Fred Alford, has said, "is the will to meaning." In the U.S. of late, paranoia has become the will to zoning. Pick a vice—guns, drugs, smokes, fast food—and you will find zoners pushing it to the fringes of any place children may congregate, mapping large and often redundant circles with schools, parks, and playgrounds at their whitewashed centers. The urge to zone has long been confined to things people do, its target activities thought best confined to the fringes of a decent society. But the increasing popularity of criminal registries has spawned a trend of zoning out people themselves.
Sex offenders are the ultimate fish-in-a-barrel political target. Absent any apparent upswing in crime, pervert bashing seems to be in vogue. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco has signed 14 anti-sex offender bills this month. ("Is there anything left we can do to sex offenders with a few days left in the session?" a state rep joked to reporters.) In Virginia, a new law requires every college and university to send applicants' personal information to state police, where it will be checked against sex offender registries. Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich is campaigning on a new sex offender hotline. Indiana, Colorado, and South Dakota have new laws, to name just a very few among the many states on the anti-offender high this summer.
For the moment, boilerplate sex offender legislation includes residency zoning, laws that typically require registered offenders not live within 1,000, 2,000, or 2,500 feet of day care centers, schools, bus stops, or other randomly chosen but suitably Mayberry-evoking public gathering places. To the extent that there is a theory at work here, it appears to be that men and women who have committed sex crimes will re-offend if permitted to spend their nights within 2,000 feet of public places where children gather during the day.
It would take an impressive zone indeed to actually separate children from sex offenders—the kind of zone that keeps out the parents, grandparents, priests, friends, and acquaintances who commit (by conservative estimates) 80 to 90 percent of those crimes. Zoning schemes, according to Sarah Tontochi at the Atlanta-based Center for Human Rights, are based on the "stranger danger myth," which Tontochi feels actively does harm by underemphasizing the very real danger of abuse-by-acquaintance.
In any case, the restrictions are likely to destroy the integrity of existing registries. Reasonable people can disagree about whether marking public personal information on ex-cons is a good idea, but zones make the costs of registering stratospheric as compared to the cost of not registering at all. As law enforcement officials in Iowa, the first state to impose residency restrictions, have come to realize, the requirements send offenders underground.
Couple the enormously elastic definition of sex offender, which tends to swallow the inane and victimless along with the truly heinous, with the blunt tool of residency zoning, and you're bound to hurt a lot of people whose crimes are hardly worthy of the name. One such case is Wendy Whitaker, who performed oral sex on a 15 year old boy 10 years ago, when she was 17. Whitaker owns a home near a church daycare center in Georgia; police forced her to leave that home last year. She then moved in with her brother, whose niece will go to school next fall. Since a school bus will pick up her niece from the house, Whitaker will again be in violation of the law if a new bus stop zoning law passes. According to the Southern Center for Human Rights, which is fighting the Georgia legislation, thousands of people will be forced to move if the law takes effect. Twenty-five of those are in nursing homes.
New public places emerge all the time, and zoning laws leave it to the highly sexed psychic powers of offenders to choose a home where authorities will not plop a public park, school, or day care center. Entire towns are easily covered, forcing offenders to move locales. But once one town adopts an ordinance, pushing sex offenders to neighboring towns, the tendency is for those towns to do so as well, provoking an arms race of circle drawing as offenders bounce from city to city. It is exile by attrition.
As with flag burning, the appeal of such legislation flows from politician to populace, its highest purpose being to smoke out politicians who oppose it. The problem with zoning proposals is that, unlike recent Republican values grandstanding in D.C., they tend to pass.
In a larger sense, recent national debates about redistricting should give the non-registered pause. It is possible to collect vast amounts of personal information about residents of any locality, to aggregate and act upon any number of data sets voters unknowingly provide. The high art of gerrymandering reminds us that it's not just sex offenders who are living highly mapped lives; let he who is without vice build the first zone. If the country really is suffering a bout of paranoia over hypothetical strangers, the sentiment would be better directed at politicking neighbors.